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Was Flower a Dirty Trick?

A protected species was planted on site to derail homes project, officials say. Activists disagree.

July 09, 2006|From the Associated Press

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — Did residents of this idyllic, wine country town illegally plant an endangered flower to sabotage a proposed housing development?

That's the question at the heart of a quarrel that people here have called "Foamgate."

Bob Evans, a 72-year-old retired elementary school principal, says he was walking last year when he came upon the tiny white flowers of Sebastopol meadowfoam poking from shallow pools of water in a field.

The former bean farm happens to be the planned site of the 20-acre, Laguna Vista housing development. Evans and other opponents of the project seized on the discovery of the federally protected species in hopes that it would force the developer to scale back plans calling for 145 houses and apartments.

But when state wildlife officials investigated, they ruled that the meadowfoam had been planted and ordered it dug up.

This year, the flowers returned, and with them the controversy.

Sebastopol, an upscale community of about 8,000 people 50 miles north of San Francisco, is known for its environmentally conscious residents and restrictive growth policies.

"Our community takes a very hard, careful look at development," said Kenyon Webster, the city's planning director.

When the meadowfoam appeared in April 2005, and the state Department of Fish and Game determined that it had been transplanted, it appeared to be a case of overzealous conservationists.

"The people who planted it mistakenly believed that it would be the silver bullet that killed the project," said Scott Schellinger of Schellinger Brothers, the Santa Rosa developer behind Laguna Vista.

Known as Limnanthes vinculans, the multi-stemmed herbs grow up to a foot tall and produce small, bowl-shaped, white flowers. They are found only in seasonal wetlands and vernal pools in this part of Sonoma County.

Threatened by agriculture and urban development, the meadowfoam was listed as an endangered species by the state and federal governments, making it illegal to harm or remove the plants without permission.

Evans and other members of the Laguna Preservation Council say the proposed $70-million development could damage the nearby Laguna de Santa Rosa, a 240-square-mile basin of wetlands that runs through Sebastopol.

He called Sonoma State biology professor Phil Northen and the head of the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. They visited the site and agreed that the plants were native.

Northen, who doesn't live in Sebastopol and had never met Evans before, said that the field was "perfect habitat" for meadowfoam and that there was no evidence the flowers had been planted.

But when the Fish and Game team saw the site at Schellinger's invitation a few weeks later, it reached the opposite conclusion.

Eric Larsen, the department's deputy regional manager, said the flowers had never before been seen at the Laguna Vista site, which is at a higher elevation than typical meadowfoam habitat. Team members also noticed plants beneath the meadowfoam, leading them to believe it had been relocated.

"They didn't belong there," Larsen said. "It was appropriate to remove them from the site."

Fish and Game officials launched an inquiry into who allegedly planted the flowers but never identified any suspects.

"The Department of Fish and Game refuses to show the data that supports this alleged act of eco-terrorism," Evans said. "I didn't plant it. No one planted it."

Fish and Game interviewed Evans and Northen, but Larsen said the case went cold. Releasing the evidence from the investigation could encourage others to try the same stunt, he said.

If the plants had been found to be indigenous, it could have triggered more environmental studies and forced the developer to reconfigure the project, said planning director Webster.

Foamgate might have ended there had the flowers not sprouted again in the same area.

Schellinger said the new plants grew from seeds planted in the "original criminal act." Fish and Game agreed and wasn't inclined to reopen the investigation.

Still, after hearings, the Sebastopol City Council tabled final approval of Laguna Vista. A mediator is overseeing negotiations between Schellinger Brothers and residents in hopes of reaching a compromise.

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